Teamwork: a short story by Shawn Vestal
Coach says we are the sorriest bunch of lazy-ass motherflippers he’s ever seen in shoulder pads. If we don’t start acting like we want to win, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Coach says we must be a team—twenty-six boys, all on the same page. Coach says we have to execute. If every one of us would just execute, there’s no reason on the gol-dang planet every play shouldn’t go for a touchdown. But no. We don’t execute. Not us.
It’s halftime at the Declo game. We are in the locker room. We are five points down.
He says, “Maybe some of you guys don’t need to be out there anymore.” He says, “Maybe some of you prima donnas need some time on the bench.” He says, “Try me. Just try me.” Red in the face, he waves his arms around like he’s being attacked by bees. He says, “You gotta get out there and fuck-dang hit somebody!”
He throws his clipboard against the wall and stomps out.
Everyone relaxes. Charles Qualls III hands out speeders—tiny white pills he orders from a magazine. Everyone treats them like they’re cocaine or something, like it’s doing drugs, like Charles is a drug dealer, but they’re just caffeine.
Still, they get you up.
Cleats clapping on the concrete, Charles mutters, “Speeder? Speeder, dude?” as he walks past each of us. Our quarterback, Jason Ashman, is sitting on the bench and praying. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t take a speeder. He leans forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped, head bowed between his hulking shoulders, asking God to help us win.
With 3:42 left, Charles Qualls III takes a swing pass from Jason Ashman out in the flat, stops in his tracks as the cornerback flies past, and runs twenty-four yards into the end zone, right onto those big orange Declo letters—HORNETS. The little bank of home-team bleachers goes quiet, while the even smaller bank of visiting-team bleachers sends up its puny cries of elation into the night, drifting into the atmosphere of cow shit and cut hay.
We hold them on their next possession and win; and thus we, the 1983 Gooding Senators, the pride of Idaho’s Magic Valley Conference, the smallest eleven-man farm-town league in the state, take our record to 1-2. Afterwards, in the celebration huddle, Coach says we should thank our lucky stars Declo is so terrible, because the way we’re playing right now we couldn’t beat a team of fourth-grade girls, for cripes’ sake. He looms over us, a Senators cap on his head and a whistle around his neck, taut globe of belly swelling against his shirt. We better decide that we want to be here or we’re not going to be here anymore, Coach says. Our problem, Coach says, is we have too much wanna and not enough hafta. He nods as he says this, as though he’s finally landed on it, as though after all this time trying to diagnose just what in the Sam damn hell is wrong with this team, he has seized on it at long last. Too much wanna, not enough hafta.
“OK!” he says. “Touch somebody.”
This is his signal to pray.
Later that night, at the bonfire in the desert, we drink warmish beer from a keg and celebrate our victory. We talk about the good plays. We complain about Coach, who we love. We pair off with girls and try to guide them toward the outskirts of the fire, toward the back seats of cars, toward the dark, lonely night.
Charles Qualls III breaks out some weed he got from his uncle in Boise, and we smoke it from an old Meerschaum pipe he stole from his grandfather, a pipe without a screen. We inhale the embers straight into our healthy pink throats and lungs, and we cough and laugh and spit, and what are we in this glorious night but young princes, risen by lineage, coronated by merit?
Who are we but the elect?
Coach says drugs are for losers and queers. We don’t want to be losers and queers, do we? We have to decide what kind of people we are going to be. We have to decide that right fucking now. We can be lazy, we can be quitters, we can be losers, we can be druggies, we can be gol-dang queers. Coach don’t care, it’s perfectly fucking fine with Coach if we do that. “Just don’t come around looking to be on one of my teams,” he says.
This makes the drugs—the whole idea of them—even better.
Monday, Coach starts focusing on the hafta. He has us run four sets of KYAs—Kick Your Asses—after practice. As punishment, he says. For not showing enough heart. A KYA goes like this: bear walk from goal line to goal line. Crab walk back. Army crawl one hundred yards. Sprint one hundred yards. Heart is the most important thing, Coach says. Heart and wanting. Heart and wanting and teamwork. And execution. But mostly heart. Which makes us wonder if hafta is just another way of saying heart, another way of saying wanting. Which makes us wonder: if wanting is the most important thing, then why would too much wanna be a problem?
We know better than to ask Coach about these things.
Four KYAs produce a festival of vomiting. Coach screams at us as we retch, shouts that maybe now we’ll learn to show some fucking heart, that if we don’t toughen up our candy asses we’ll find ourselves losing more games this year. Is that what we want, to accept the tragedy of losing? Because Glenns Ferry, Coach says, is not going to be the cakewalk that Declo was. Glenns Ferry is not a pack of disgusting fucking pussies, and we can’t take no candy-ass bull crap to Glenns Ferry and expect to win, and is that what we want, to be losers our whole goddamned lousy terrible lives?
After practice, Coach tells us we have to go to the nursing home on the edge of town and dance with the old ladies for the Harvest Festival in a couple weeks. Coach will make us wear ties, and give corsages to the old ladies, and dance with them to horrible organ music in the cafeteria, where everything will smell like pee and VapoRub and hamburger.
Coach says we are leaders, and leaders owe it to be fucking decent and whatnot to people in the community who are not. Like old people or math kids. He makes us wear ties on game days, because we’re supposed to be people the other kids look up to. We’re setting an example. If we don’t fucking like it, we can take our lousy ungrateful behinds right off this team and hang out with the rest of the losers and queers, out in the parking lot with the druggies and smokers who will never do a decent thing in their lives. But if we want to stay on the team with the gol-dang leaders and the winners, then we’ll by God put on a motherflipping tie and dance with those nice old ladies and not complain about it one bit.
Glenns Ferry has this running back, Rodriguez, who drags half our defense downfield on every play. Jason Ashman throws two interceptions. Charles Qualls III can’t make it past the line of scrimmage. At halftime, we’re down 21-0, and Coach doesn’t yell at us, but he’s yelling in a certain way, in spirit, or he’s past yelling, maybe, so gravely have we let him down. He’s telling us he’s never been as motherflipping disgusted with a group of kids as he is with us now, and we feel his disgust so sharply and personally—we feel Coach actually does not approve of us as human beings.
He says if we don’t figure out a way to man up and stop that wetback—this is what he calls Rodriguez, although sometimes he calls him a spic or a beaner—then we might as well just lie down on the field and give each other pedicures and blowjobs. Once, when he calls Rodriguez a beaner, he looks over at Jesse Contreras, our huge right tackle, and says, “No offense, kid,” and Jesse says, “No,” and we think maybe Jesse is saying, ‘No offense’ doesn’t cut it, maybe he’s saying, There very much is offense, please don’t say that, or maybe he’s saying, Fuck that, Coach, but then it doesn’t seem like it, because Coach always talks like that, calls Jesse a beaner and a wetback all the time, just like he calls our terrible punter, Dana Sazue, who is Northern Shoshone, chief and sheepeater in that same almost sort-of friendly way. He does it, we mean, like he likes Jesse, like he’s saying, You’re one of the good ones, kid, and Jesse always acts like it’s okay, like he’s abashed at the affection he’s being shown, so we always think that it’s okay, too; we think that Coach’s heart is in the right place, just like all of our hearts—our big farm-boy hearts—are in the right place, too.
But when Jesse gives Coach that look, we sometimes wonder.
Coach leaves, and Charles trawls the locker room, handing out speeders. Most of us double up, except for Jason and a couple of the underclassmen who go to his church, who’re praying together while we wash down our pills, which honestly makes it better for the rest of us that the churchy kids don’t join. We go out and do better in the second half, we score a couple times and hold them to three-and-out on a few possessions, but in the end we lose 34-13, and Coach tells us he’s never been so appalled by a group of so-called football players in his everloving life.
Next it’s Buhl at home, and Buhl murders us. Charles Qualls III barely ever makes it out of the backfield, and Jason Ashman gets sacked eleven times.
Coach loses his voice at halftime—we hear it go, hear his scream break into a screech, like radio feedback squealing out of his purple, rage-darkened face. Then it falls into a rasp, an impotent whisper that’s almost funny. He is whispering that, given the miserable, cocksucking way we’re playing, given how the line can’t make a block to save its life and how the defense is just going up to the Buhl players and giving them little hugs, he can’t tell if any of us even want to be there anymore. And if we don’t, then could we just go ahead and take off our pads and, by God, sit in the stands with the rest of the losers? Didn’t we want to hit somebody? Can’t he find just one kid—just one gol-dang little fucker—who wants to hit some—
And after that, his voice is all the way gone.
Never mind the score.
Charles Qualls III gets some mushrooms before the old ladies’ dance. He gets these hallucinogens from his uncle in Boise who’s spent time in prison, who knows all kinds of things, things he’s taught Charles, and which Charles has since taught us. How to hot-wire a car. How to shotgun a beer. How to hold the pot smoke in your lungs a long time so it makes you high.
He was right about the speeders, they really did provide a jolt, and he was also right about the marijuana, the dusty, green-brown weed he brought around in plastic sandwich baggies, weed that was full of little stems and purplish seeds that popped and crackled as they burned in the bowl of his grandfather’s pipe and got us so baked it was all we could do not to lie down on the ground. And so between that and the speeders and the beer, we keep this secret from the world—from our parents and our teachers, from the upstanding kids in school, from Jason Ashman and his freshman disciples, and from Coach, especially from Coach, this secret we share, that we carry apart from the ordinary others, and so what the heck, we—the elect—said we’d give the mushrooms a try, too.
But first, before the old ladies’ dance, we’re scheduled to play Wood River at home. Wood River is out of our conference, the worst of the bigger schools in the area. Game night arrives, and they come onto the field in their all-black uniforms, helmets flashing in the field lights. It’s the first cool night of the season, the first time you can smell winter coming. Someone is burning ditch moss nearby, so there’s a note of scorched material in the chill, a real football night, and our parents are all in the stands, most of them anyway, and the other kids from school, and the cheerleaders, and the pep band playing the theme song from Hawaii Five-O. Wood River has no kind of defensive line, and so for the first time in weeks, Jason Ashman has time to pass, and Charles Qualls III is hitting holes off tackle and turning the corners, and it’s just like Coach said: if we each do our job, if we each just execute, they can’t keep up with us.
We execute our asses off. We go up 17-0 by halftime and end up winning by way more, and Coach tells us he’s proud, for the first time all year he’s seen something in us, a spark, a flame, some God-sakes fucking heart, dang it, and maybe we’re gonna be all right, he says, maybe we can get this season on track after all; and we wonder, On track to what?, but who cares, it’s nice to see him happy, and it feels good to win, maybe not as good as it seems to feel for Coach, but good still, and later that evening when we gather in the desert, we feel like winners, we drink beer and woo-hoo and try to get girls to let us take their pants off.
The next Monday is the old ladies’ dance.
Seven of us take mushrooms beforehand. Charles Qualls III doles them out in the parking lot after practice, all of us half-damp and sour-smelling from the locker room, and we chew them down. He says they’ll be kicking in by the time we arrive at Frahm Senior Center. The mushrooms taste awful, like nuggets of dried cow turd that Charles has slipped us as a joke. We think surely once we swallow them Charles will start laughing at us, preparing the story for everyone else, but he doesn’t, and when Brent Grogan makes a gagging sound and spits his half-chewed mushrooms in his palm, Charles freaks out and shouts, “Don’t waste them, dipshit!” Little brown bits decorate the sagging column of saliva between Brent’s mouth and his open hand. Charles gathers up the spitty pieces, dries them on his shirtsleeve, and eats them himself.
Only three of the seven of us who take shrooms know beforehand what Charles Qualls III is planning to do at the dance. None of the rest of us do.
What’s weird is the way the world seems to breathe with us, in time with our own breathing. As if the walls of the nursing home cafeteria are gently and sustainingly expanding and contracting, like a bellows, like lungs. The quality of the light is pure and sweet, a magisterial, divine brightness emanating from tubes overhead, and some of us begin to stare up at these, which are also pulsing like living portals in the flesh of the world, and we cannot take our eyes off the light. We stand in the middle of the cafeteria—on the “dance floor”—looking up in amazement for a very long time until Coach comes stomping over, head way out over of his feet, asking what in the gol-dang everloving hell is wrong with us, and peering angrily into our faces.
“Your eyes are not right,” he hisses. “I don’t know what you little bastards have been up to, but right now I want you to get over there and ask those ladies to God-sakes dance.”
What happened was, after we got into the dance, Charles Qualls III put some liquid acid he’d gotten from his uncle into a few cups of punch. His uncle had taught him how to make blotter tabs out of it, thinking Charles could help expand his sales to Gooding, that Charles could be, like, his drug-dealing franchisee or something, and our town’s young people, and the mighty 1983 Gooding Senators especially, would be his clientele. Charles’s uncle had dreams of empire.
But nobody around here does acid, not that we know of anyway, not at the high school—maybe kids are doing acid in Boise or Twin Falls, but not out here in the sticks—and Charles hadn’t gotten around to dosing out the blotters and trying to sell them or anything, and then he got this funny idea about the old ladies’ dance and putting drops into the cups of punch sitting there on the table.
Five drops, five cups.
One of the things about what happens is how fast it goes. About as fast as a single play in football. One pass. One run. Fast the way life concentrates its energy and potency and importance into spasms that leap without warning, brief fits in the long flat line of hours. By the time you realize what’s going on, it’s already raced past you; the whistle is blown, and you’re looking back on it, gazing at the irrevocable statistics.
In the cafeteria, the long tables have been folded up and rolled against the walls, along with the stacks of chairs. This leaves half the room for dancing. The fluorescent lights cast luscious buttery ovals on the linoleum. A Mentholatum-smelling man in suspenders and a bristling flannel shirt—one that seems to be alive, fibers waving in a gentle wind—plays songs at the organ that are unexpectedly, exceedingly beautiful. Painfully beautiful. The women are in polyester and rayon, in hairspray and flats. They tremble while we dance. We think they might be forced to be here just as we are, dancing with us only because to refuse to dance with us would be unkind. Coach is dancing with a tall, thin lady with large glasses and a bouffant. His belly rests between them like a stone they are hauling.
Those of us who ate the mushrooms are not doing a good job of dancing. Some of us forget to move, rapt at the gorgeous music, tears spilling down our cheeks. The old ladies, their hands light as Styrofoam in ours as we dance, find this confusing. Coach sidles up to us and intently considers our weeping faces, and we dance away from him as though he is a burning flame.
It is terrifying, the intensity and strangeness of our minds.
One of the women sitting in a folding chair starts screeching and waving her clenched fists in front of her face. She screams louder and louder, though the screams are not very loud, and then freezes. As we turn to see what’s happening, the woman dancing with Jason Ashman slumps right onto to the floor. Just plop. Her slipper comes off, and her pale, liver-spotted foot, with a big toe as crooked as a bone break, lies on the linoleum like a fish. Another woman, sitting by her walker in a housedress, puts her face into her hands and sobs.
Attendants rush to the women. The sober stand baffled. The Mentholatum-smelling man in the bristling shirt starts to pound the organ keys with his fists, and then leans on the entire board with his forearms like he’s holding down a calf for branding. The woman dancing with Brent Grogan gets down onto her hands and knees and crawls, slowly, arthritically, under the punch table.
Coach releases the lady he’s dancing with and looks around. He’s acting like he acts during a close game, his focus is that intense, his face darting from one person in distress to the next.
What this feels like is: Coach is called upon to understand the moment and he cannot.
Or: Coach feels responsible for the event going well, and he cannot figure out why it isn’t.
Or: Coach feels a crumbling loss of control, just as he does when we are behind, a slipping-away, a falling, a loss.
Two of the women die. Their hearts couldn’t bear the stress and amazement. In the first of a million newspaper stories, the local weekly, the Gooding County Leader, reports that the women suffered “heart attacks brought on by the presence of a hallucinogenic drug that police believe was introduced into food or drink at an event being held at the facility.” Two others—one man and one woman—suffer heart attacks and are hospitalized, but survive. Several others are “traumatized and terrorized” by the experience, a staff nurse tells the newspaper.
The story doesn’t mention the fact that the 1983 Gooding Senators football team had been present at the event. But the second, third, fourth, and fifth stories—the ones that run on the front pages of the daily newspapers in Twin Falls, Boise, Denver, and Salt Lake—mention it in the first paragraph.
Before long, reporters from everywhere in the country show up. We can spot them by their rental cars, their city clothes, their brusque manners. They go around town interviewing everyone about “the players,” asking what kinds of kids we are, if anyone is surprised that this happened—and they approach us, too, saying they’re trying to get our side of it, that they just want to make sure we know we can tell our stories if we want to, saying they want to be fair to us, but none of us talk to them.
Some of the people tell them we’re good kids from good families in a good town, but others say we’re trouble, have always been trouble, and everyone knows it. If we’d been a better football team, more people would probably have supported us.
The headlines are screamers.
TWO DIE IN ONE-WAY TRIP
DID FOOTBALL PLAYERS SPIKE PUNCH?
THEY CAME TO DANCE, BUT DID THEY DEAL OUT DEATH INSTEAD?
Coach is quoted saying he doesn’t believe his boys had anything to do with it, but if they did he will “gol-dang well find out.”
Nobody does. At least, not for sure. The police interview each of us individually, and we all say the same thing: we have no idea what happened. We were just as surprised as everyone else. We are sure, sure, that neither we nor any of our teammates were responsible. None of us even know what LSD really is. We were there to be nice to those old people, not to kill them.
It’s pretty spectacular when you think about it. Twenty-six boys, all on the same page. Of course, lots of us actually don’t know what happened. Most of us, in fact. We were coming apart way before the dance, we mighty Senators, back in the locker rooms when some of us took speeders and some prayed, back on the Friday nights when some of us drank at the desert keggers and some of us stayed at home. But most of us who don’t know can guess. We can see it right on the face of Charles Qualls III, whose entire demeanor changed after the dance, taking on the pale blush of one who hides, a secret-keeper, guilty. But none of us rats. Not even Jason Ashman.
The school cancels the rest of the season anyway. It’s too suspicious. Too distracting. The newspapers would have been at every game, for heaven’s sake—those ferrety city men and women with their notebooks, nodding as they scribble. We forfeit to Wendell, Mountain Home, Filer, Valley, and Jerome.
Every single day in school, forever after, someone makes a joke about it, asks if we put anything in their milk at lunch, if we know where the punch-bowl is, if they can have this dance. It’s funny—sometimes funny ha-ha and sometimes funny weird and usually both—but it turns out it’s not embarrassing. Not with the other kids. The other kids seem to kind of . . . approve of it? Or something?
Though it’s hard not to think of Coach, to think of him telling us that the season has been canceled, like a man confessing a crime to his victims. We are sitting on the bleachers in the gym after school, the doors shut against a scrum of reporters outside. Coach pulls up a chair and sits before us, seemingly drained of blood.
He wants to believe the best of his boys, he says, and he is trying to believe the best of us. This is hard, a bitter disappointment, but that’s one of the things we might as well learn about life, Coach says, how sometimes it’s just one motherflipping loss after another. Sometimes, Coach says, we will find ourselves facing the fucking gol-dang true facts about life—sometime later, he means, when we are grown, when we have gathered up the disappointments that will come our way, deaths and heartbreaks and the dissolutions of football teams, the inevitable failures of the world to live up to our hopes—and we will have to learn to keep living, to keep going, to persevere.
It’s the only fucking way, Coach says. The only fucking way to live is to keep going when you think you can’t keep going. When people take away the things that are yours. When life gives you the royal gol-dang screw job. Head down, stick it out.
His voice falls quieter. He stares at the floor. We can see dandruff clinging to his neatly combed rows of dark gray hair, and his bright red scalp beneath.
He wanted to protect us from this, he says. He tried to get the school board to listen. To tell them we were good boys. That we don’t deserve this. That our lives would be forever altered, worsened, ruined. Ruined, he says. A season, cut short.
He stops. Stares into the gym’s floor. We think he’s just paused, gathering his thoughts. We wait, not feeling ruined at all—just feeling that we are coming apart, we are separating, we are a team no longer, and that’s fine—until we realize he has nothing more to say.